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How Democratic state wins in the midterms could rev up climate progress

States are already doing the most to shrink electricity-sector emissions. These new Democratic wins and trifectas” could push even bolder policies forward.
By Jeff St. John

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An African American man smiles and poses with two women on a city street
Maryland Governor-elect Wes Moore with residents in Baltimore (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The results of the midterm elections may have dampened hopes for additional action on climate change at the federal level, with Republicans expected to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the next two years.

But wins for Democrats in state legislative and governor races could lay the groundwork for even stronger action on climate change at the state level, which is exactly where a lot of the hard work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and spending the federal climate funding made available through landmark legislation over the past two years — needs to happen.

Tuesday’s election cemented Democratic trifectas,” or control of both the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature, in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota, opening the door to more aggressive climate policies in those states. And across the country, 17 governors who support climate policies that could collectively yield an 80 percent reduction in their state greenhouse gas emissions won election or reelection, according to nonprofit advocacy group Evergreen Action.

In states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania [and] New Mexico, voters delivered a clear mandate on climate by electing governors who campaigned on climate action,” Jamal Raad, Evergreen Action’s executive director, said in a Thursday press conference.

That’s important, because state-level actions could make or break the country’s trajectory toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to forestall the greatest harms of global warming. State lawmakers and regulators are the key actors in setting mandates for utilities to close down fossil-fuel-fired power plants and increase the share of zero-carbon resources such as wind and solar power, for example. That’s a vital step in reducing the carbon-intensity of grid power needed for electric vehicles, heating and cooling in buildings, industrial processes and other fossil-fueled parts of the economy — all sectors where states have their own roles to play as well.

The nearly $370 billion dedicated to fighting climate change in the Inflation Reduction Act provides a major boost to state-level action, Justin Balik, Evergreen Action’s state program director, said in a Friday interview. At the same time, he pointed out, a lot of the policies in the IRA can trace their origins back to the state level.” Now, with the likelihood of House Republicans blocking further federal action, states are going to be a crucial battleground.”

How Democratic state wins could accelerate state climate efforts 

States are already the primary driver for cutting emissions from the electricity sector, with nearly half of all states setting long-term clean electricity targets via legislation or executive order. Last year, Democratic lawmakers in states including Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and Washington passed laws that accelerate their climate goals, and this year has seen legislatures in Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island do the same.

In previous years, Democrats in Maryland and Massachusetts have had to overcome pushback from Republican governors and in some cases make compromises to pass legislation over their veto threats. Newly won Democratic trifectas in both states could clear the field for more aggressive action, Balik said.

In Maryland, Governor-elect Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor, is a climate hawk who has pledged to support Maryland’s mandate of 100 percent clean energy by 2035 by supercharging investments in wind and solar developments, and investing in battery storage research and development.”

In Massachusetts, Governor-elect Maura Healey, who as the state’s attorney general filed a landmark lawsuit against Exxon Mobil accusing the oil company of misleading the public about its impacts on climate change, has a climate plan that goes beyond current state law in seeking emission cuts from power generation, buildings and transportation.

One example of what’s on the table in Massachusetts is expanding the role that city and county governments can play in banning or restricting new fossil gas infrastructure, Balik said. Charlie Baker, the outgoing Republican governor, had insisted on limiting the scope of these controversial local gas bans to a handful of pilot projects, he said. Healey could open the way for state lawmakers to expand that authority across the state, which could support broader plans to allow gas utilities to create new business models to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives such as geothermal districts.

In Michigan and Minnesota, the midterms flipped control of state legislatures to Democrats, giving incumbent Democratic governors the opening to turn executive actions on climate into more durable legislative measures.

In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Healthy Climate Plan, unveiled in 2020, sets targets to boost the state’s clean energy targets to 60 percent by 2030, electrify school buses and transit buses, and reduce building heating emissions, as well as support the state’s legacy automotive industry in its shift to producing electric vehicles. With Tuesday’s election expected to give Democrats the slightest of majorities in both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 1980s, now that plan can turn from aspiration to reality,” Balik said.

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz unveiled a Climate Action Framework last month calling for 100 percent clean energy by 2040, as well as funding electric vehicle charging stations, carbon sequestration on farmlands and climate-change adaptation. Previous efforts to pass renewable portfolio standards and EV incentive programs have been blocked by a Republican-controlled Senate, but Democrats won a majority of state Senate seats and retained control of the statehouse, giving these climate policies a chance to move ahead.

State and federal action hitting on all cylinders 

It’s possible to make climate progress in states where control is split between political parties, Balik pointed out — but not as rapidly as the imperatives of climate change demand. In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has sought to reverse some of the aggressive climate policies set in place by a Democratic legislature in 2020, and North Carolina Republican lawmakers watered down many of the features of a climate plan promoted by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in a clean energy law passed last year.

A new report from America Is All In, a coalition of local government and business leaders formed after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, makes clear how important state-level action will be over the coming decade. It found that effective implementation of all existing state-level policies now in effect is integral to achieving the estimated 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 enabled by the Inflation Reduction Act.

Leah Stokes, a professor and climate policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said during Thursday’s Evergreen Action press conference that climate advocates need to look at what has been happening at states across the country and get more states to act to do things like banning gas in new construction for buildings, ratcheting up clean electricity standards, moving faster to clean up their transportation sectors.”

Stokes helped craft a federal clean electricity standard that didn’t make it into the final form of the Inflation Reduction Act. That leaves states in control of setting policies that either allow utilities to continue operating and building new fossil-fueled power plants — as most U.S. utilities plan to continue doing — or setting mandates to change that trajectory, as an October report from think tank Energy Innovation highlighted.

At the same time, tens of billions of dollars of Inflation Reduction Act funding are going to be directed to state agencies to spend, including billions of dollars for building electrification, environmental remediation and community solar, Stokes said. So are tens of billions of dollars from last year’s infrastructure law.

That means states don’t have to do this alone,” she said. But it also means we have to make sure that they understand where this money is and how they can spend it.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.